On the Go: Samson Graphite Controllers

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With the increasing popularity of both tablets (such as the iPad) and super-light notebooks (like the MacBook Air), music creation has become less and less bound to a studio, and more oriented to something done when and where inspiration happens.

It’s precisely that realization that seems to have led Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Samson Technologies to introduce recently a quartet of mini USB controllers, tailor-made for musicians and producers on-the-go. Known by the family name of “Graphite,” the new line offers-up a pair of keyboard controllers, plus a pad controller, and what’s best defined, perhaps, as a mix/transport controller.

The whole family is USB-based, and works easily and in the usual way with Windows and Macs. Samson claims compatibility with the iPad, but the proviso is that the support is not exactly direct—when coupled with Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can merely plug one of the controllers into the USB port of one of the kit’s adapters otherwise intended for a camera connection.

On the plus side, Samson offers the Graphite Editor Software for free download from their web site. The software provides preset editing for all four products, allowing you to create and save presets for rapid recall on the device. The software is available in versions for both Windows and Mac users.
M25: The M25 is a keyboard controller with (as its name suggests) 25 keys. In addition, it sports transport controls, four pads, eight rotary encoders, and pitch bend and modulation both as touch-sensitive strips, among others.

Measuring roughly 6-by-14-inches, it is perhaps one of the most compact MIDI keyboards I’ve used. The rotary encoders and transport controls can easily be mapped to functions in your DAW via MIDI Learn, of course. The M25 has no support for external “stuff” like a sustain pedal (perhaps not something you’d want in a truly mobile set-up), but it does offer a sustain button which will get the job done in a pinch.

The overall feel of the controls is more or less what one might expect, and is much like any type of controller in this price range. The rotary controls have a nice feel, and the rubberized pads and transport buttons have a typical somewhat mushy, but fully expected and satisfactory tactile response.
What might leave a bit to be desired is the feel of the keys on the keyboard itself—they’re a bit mushy feeling. Each key, however, is only about 3-inches deep, vs. roughly double that of a full size keyboard. That limits travel, of course, and consequently the play feel as well.

An octave on the M25 is just under 5.5-inches wide (it’s closer to 6.5-inches on a standard keyboard). I found that it took some getting used to, but for the sorts of use cases for which you might employ the M25, two-handed conventional piano-style playing isn’t likely to be the goal; it’s more about pecking-out single notes or perhaps dyads, rather than complex chords.

Finally, the pitch bend and modulation “wheels” are touch-sensitive strips. I certainly understand the simplicity of the choice, but not being able to see, visually, the position of the mod “wheel” might introduce some challenges in some situations.

Despite some usability quibbles on my part, I can easily see the M25 being a “throw-in-the-backpack” solution for playing with musical concepts anytime, anywhere. And for right around $80 (street price), it’s sitting on my “must-buy” list as we speak.

M32. The M32 is much like the M25—minus some of the extras. It has no pads, no transport controls, no rotary encoders… just keys (32 of them, as you might guess), some programming buttons, plus octave and sustain buttons.

My observations about the M32 are quite similar to the M25 across the board. At $70 (street price), it’d be a logical choice for anyone who simply wants a wider range of notes to work with, and who doesn’t need the extra control capabilities of the M25.

MD13. Samson departs from the usual with the MD13. This controller sports 13 backlit, rubberized pads, arranged chromatically in the physical pattern of an entire octave (plus a note)—eight of them along the bottom, and five above them in the positioning of the black keys of a keyboard. On the left side, six rotary knobs are included for extra mappable control, and on the right, basic transport buttons and octave buttons. Also included are customization buttons and a DJ-like crossfader.

The use cases for the MD13 are probably not wholly different than for the M25 and M32—it’s really geared for note input on-the-go. However, I can imagine a lot of users—especially consumers who are not trained keyboardists—finding the pad design approach less intimidating than a conventional keyboard. I also think there’s a potential usability benefit here; the large, rubberized pads seems to beg for one-handed, free-form musical experimentation. The MD13 comes at a street price of roughly $60.

MF8. Perhaps the most unusual and most innovative controller of the quartet is the MF8. Designed for mix control clearly in mind, it sports a total of eight groups of mix controls, each with a knob, a slider, and a pair of buttons (one designed for mute, one designed for record arming)—enough to support the control of eight tracks. There’s a full set of transport controls, and five function buttons. In the middle, there’s a crossfader, plus a set of customization controls.

When testing on my Mac with Ableton Live, I found the MF8 easy to program via MIDI Learn to do what you might naturally expect (namely, track-by-track mix control). The MF8 is available for $60 (street price).
Conclusion. The Graphite family of mini-USB controllers from Samson offers a lot of bang for the buck. All four controllers deliver on their promise to free the musician and producer from the confines of the usual four studio walls, and introduce an “anytime, anywhere” approach to music-making.